Style

In English, good style means saying what you want concisely and efficiently, avoiding unnecessary repetitions – implied as well as by using similar words in proximity – and using language that is not biased or contains slang. The following rules and lists should give you a sense of what to look out for. See also the “Words to Avoid” and “Often Misused” sections of this website.

1.     Choice of words

It is considered bad style to:

a. Repeat the same word in proximity. Use a Thesaurus! I prefer Roget’s International Thesaurus, but http://www.thesaurus.com is also quite comprehensive.

b. Use rare, sophisticated or boastful words or expressions too often. The rule is: if a reasonably educated reader stumbles over a sentence a few times before making sense of it, it probably needs to be revised. Keep your language simple and clear.

c. Use foreign words. Write in English. If you are not sure about word usage, consult Fowler’s Modern English Usage, or use Google Books to search for the word in that particular usage (if a word appears in the context you are looking for in many books, especially recent ones, you probably got it right).

 

2.    Length of sentences

English prefers short sentences. When your sentence appears to be longer than two lines, make sure you have a very good reason to do so. If not, divide it into two or more sentences.  The only exception is when quoting directly from a source, and when using semi-colons (;).

3.    Passive voice

English prefers sentences in the active rather than passive voice. Limit your passive usage to minimum.

4.   Tenses

Do not switch between tenses in the same sentence or while expressing a certain idea, unless you have a very good reason to do so. Here the meaning is not to switch between past, present, and future. Since there are more than three tenses in English, the rule is not to switch from one tense that conveys actions in the past, to another that discusses actions in the present. Thus usage of Past Perfect and Past Simple in the same sentence/idea is allowed, but you will need a very good reason to use Past Simple and Present Continuous together.

5.    Pronouns

Some writers prefer to use “we” or “I”, while others prefer to say “one” or “a person.” It does not matter which one is used, and it is actually better to alternate between them to avoid redundancy. However, you should use a gender-neutral language by preferring “one” or “he or she” over just “he,” unless you are referring to a male specifically.

6.    More Pronouns

Make sure it is clear who you are talking about when replacing a proper name for a pronoun. If there is even the slightest unclarity who heshe,they, or it refer to, you cannot use a pronoun (or you need to resolve the clarity issue).

7.    Quotations

When quoting directly from a book/article, some writers like to preface the quotation by giving details on the person they are quoting: “Bernard Lewis, in his book The Arabs in History says that…” or: “As professor Lewis argues”, or: “to quote Cleveland”, or even: “Crone writes that…” I tend to limit such expressions to minimum. Since the name of the work is specified in the relevant footnote/endnote, there is usually no reason to mention it again in the main text. The exception to this rule is when one is developing a thesis that quarrels with previous scholars. It is then useful to mention who you are referring to.

 

8. Avoid hesitant, noncommittal, or colorless language that conveys doubt.

Limit the use of cancouldmaymightshould and would to situations where real uncertainty is called for.

 

9.    Use definite and concrete rather than general language.

For example: instead of “a period of,” say how much time has actually passed; instead of “she showed satisfaction/dissatisfaction,” say what exactly did she do.

10.   Write in a positive language

Use the word “not” when denying something or as an antithesis only, and not when it can be substituted by a positive antonym. For example: instead of “she does not usually drive fast” say: “she usually drives slowly.”

Not makes a stronger sentence when it appears in opposition to a positive structure, as in: “It was not his beliefs, but his economic status, that prompted him to leave his home.”

11.   Who is/which is/that is are often unnecessary.

Omit them whenever the meaning can be clearly preserved. Example:

Her sister, who is a lousy driver, crashed into a tree becomes Her sister, a lousy driver, crashed into a tree;

Walmart, which is the largest employer in the US, sells furniture becomesWalmart, the largest employer in the US, sells furniture.

12.   Write full sentences, not fragments.

Look out for sentences that should have a subordinate clause, and remember that a complete sentence has to have at least one verb, and a properly phrased one should have at least one noun.

13.   Omit needless words

See the list below for how to avoid redundancy, and then check out the lists on “Words to Avoid” and “Often Misused”.

 

Avoiding redundancy:

 

Redundancy means not only repeating the same word in proximity or its overuse; it also refers to stating the same idea in similar terms, or using any words or expressions that can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

1. Adjectives (in italics) below duplicate part of the nouns they modify, since the noun is already by definition what the adjective describes. Omitting the adjective usually resolves the redundancy.

advance planning, warning

angry clash

heir apparent

awkward predicament

chief protagonist

close proximity

complete master, monopoly, ruin

definite decision

end product, result

essential condition

excess verbiage

fellow playmates, colleagues

final completion, settlement, outcome

first priority

fresh beginning

full satisfaction

general rule, public

good benefit

grateful thanks

habitual custom

immediate neighbors

important essentials

integral part

joint cooperation

local resident

lonely isolation

major breakthrough

more superior, preferable

mutual cooperation

necessary requisite

new beginning, creation, innovation,

original source

past history

peaceful coexistence

present incumbent

proposed plan

prototype model

separate entities

serious danger

successful achievements

surrounding circumstances

total annihilation, extinction

true facts

usual customs

violent explosion

young infant, teenager

 

2. Nouns can be redundant too:

barracks buildings

capitol building

connective word

doctorate degree

draft version

environment surroundings

period of time

undergraduate student

weather conditions

widow woman

 

3. And so can prepositions:

ascend, hoist, lift, zoom up

attach, assemble, collaborate, cooperate, fuse, join, merge, unite together

connect up/together

continue on/still

eliminate altogether

feel of

follow after

gather up/together

hurry up

join up

penetrate into

persist still

protrude out

recall, recoil, return, revert, remand back

separate apart

sink, swoop down

skirt around

termed as

adequate enough

and moreover

appear to be

appointed to the post of

as never before in the past

as to whether

as yet

atop of, inside of

at some time to come

but nevertheless

commute to and from

continue to remain

dates back from

descend down

eliminate altogether

entirely complete

equally as

every now and then

face up to

frown, smile on his face

last of all

made out of

may, might possibly

mutual advantage of both

never at any time

on the occasion when

over and done with

over with

quite unique

throughout the length and breadth

and so as a result

any and all

each and every

one and the same

pair of twins

today’s modern woman

when and if

 

Redundant expressions (and a better replacement):

ahead of schedule (early)

a large proportion of, percentage of (many)

am in possession of (have)

a percentage of (some)

are present in greater abundance (are more abundant)

at an early date (soon)

best of health (well, healthy)

by the name of (named)

call your attention to the fact that (remind/notify you)

caused injuries to (injured)

committed acts of a horrible character (committed horrible acts)

destroyed by fire (burned)

draw the attention of … to (show, point out)

during the time that (while)

each one (each or one)

from the commercial standpoint (commercially)

gathered together (met)

give rise to (cause)

had occasion to be (was)

he/she is a man/woman who (he/she)

her story is a strange one (omit one)

in advance of (before)

in a hasty manner (hastily)

in spite of the fact that (though, although)

in the neighborhood, vicinity of (near, nearly, about)

in this day and age (today)

made an approach to (approached)

made a statement saying (stated, said)

owing/due to the fact that (since, because)

placed under arrest (arrested)

put in an appearance (appear)

render assistance to (help)

retain position as (remain)

suburban area (suburbs)

succumbed to injuries (died)

take action on the issue (act)

take into consideration (consider)

the fact that he has left (his departure)

the fact that I ate the cake (my eating of the cake)

the house in question (this house)

the question as to whether (whether)

the reason for this is (it happened/occurred because)

the reason why is that (because)

this is a subject that (this subject)

used for… purposes (omit purposes)

was of the opinion that (believed, thought, said)

was witness to (saw)

Source: Marjorie Skillin and Robert Gay, Words into Type (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974), 407-9.

 

Of or related to:

For many things one wants to describe English has an adjective that eliminates the need to say “in terms of”, come up with awkward constructions, or form adverbs by attaching “-ly” where it doesn’t really belong. Such adjectives denote “of or related to.” Here are some common and not-so-common examples:

Affective – emotions

Alimentary – food

Aquiline – eagles

Aurous – gold

Balneal/balneary – baths or bathing

Bovine – cows

Caloric – heat

Caprine – goats

Cardiac – heart

Cephalic – head

Cerebral – brain

Chromatic – color

Chronological – time

Cibarious – food

Commercial – commerce, trade

Cosmological – space, the universe

Deontic – duty or obligations as ethical concepts

Dorsal – upper side or back of organism/animal/plant

Dynamic – forces producing motion, action, activity, event

Encephalic – brain

Equine – horses

Feline – cats

Gustatory – tasting or the sense of taste

Kinaesthetic – ability to feel movements of body parts

Moral – principles of right and wrong behavior

Murine – mice or rodents in general

Olfactory – the sense of smell

Ovine – sheep

Passerine – birds

Pecuniary – money

Piscine – fish

Pneumatic – air, gas

Porcine – pigs

Pulmonary – lungs

Sartorial – clothes, tailoring, or quality of dress

Simian – monkeys

Sonic – sound, sound waves

Taurine – bulls

Temporal – 1. time 2. worldly, as opposed to spiritual, affairs

Ursine – bears

Vulpine – foxes